What families need to know to support their child’s reading

I am the parent of two elementary school children who were mostly learning from home this past school year because of the pandemic. During that time, I often wondered, “How can I help my children with their reading, and how can I best do this with the limited time I have?” If you’re a parent or caregiver who has thought the same, you’re in the right place. (If you’re an educator eager to support families reading at home, please share this post with them!)

The good news is that there are ways to make a difference. In fact, you are likely already having a positive impact on your child’s reading by just having conversations with them. Why? Because reading and language are strongly connected. When we read, we are trying to understand language from words that we see, usually on a page or screen. So learning new words through listening and using them when we talk can help us better understand what we read. This is particularly true for children who are just starting to learn to read.

To better understand how to support your reader at home, it helps to learn about areas of reading instruction that have been shown to further reading growth. We’ll explore some of these—and explain how they’re connected—in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s talk about the model many educators base their reading instruction on: the simple view of reading.

About the simple view of reading

Why do we read? We read for many different reasons, such as enjoyment, learning, and inspiration. But to benefit in these ways, we must first be able to understand what we are reading. As you think about what may help your child make sense of what they read, consider the two main building blocks they’ll need: language comprehension and decoding.

[B]oth language comprehension and decoding are required to make sense of what we read.

Language comprehension is simply the ability to understand language, whether it is heard or read. When a friend calls to tell you about something funny that happened to them, you understand what they’re saying because you can comprehend language; that is, you understand the string of words your friend is speaking.

Decoding, on the other hand, is the ability to turn sets of letters you see into the sounds they represent and to then blend them together to form words. If that same friend describes the funny situation over a text message, you are able to read the words because you can decode them. To understand the text, you need to be able to decode and understand the language your friend is using.

The idea that both language comprehension and decoding are required to make sense of what we read is the simple view of reading in a nutshell. The simple view of reading is also represented in the graphic below. The top piece of the triangle is reading comprehension, or making sense of what we read. This is a key goal of reading. The two skills needed to reach this goal make up the bottom two pieces of the triangle: language comprehension and decoding.

The simple view of reading

What can I do now to support reading at home? 

So where do you start to help your child? There are lots of things to consider, like phonics, and I promise we’ll dig deep into each one of those and give you specific strategies to try in the coming weeks. But for now I encourage you to focus on the following three things, which you’re probably already doing to some degree. Remember: you don’t need be an expert in reading to try any of these or to support your child in growing as a reader at home.

1. Get to know your reader

Kids are at different places in their reading development, but they can all grow. A good way to find out how your child is reading is to listen to them read out loud, even something short. Doing this can provide you with information about how they are doing. Maybe your child needs help knowing how to pause at periods, or maybe they read smoothly and with the right expression.

It’s equally valuable to talk to your child about how they feel about reading. Do they like to read? Are there topics they especially like? What are their favorite books or stories? How is reading going at school? Understanding where they are can help you be better prepared to support them.

2. Give kids access to age-appropriate texts

Make sure your child has access to reading material that’s right for their age. Educators call these age-appropriate texts grade-level texts. They include vocabulary, sentence length, and topics appropriate for students at their age. Reading grade-level texts helps students meet their grade’s learning goals for the year because they’re getting enough—and the right kind of—practice to develop the skills they need to succeed. If your child struggles with reading texts for their grade, talk to their teacher about ways you can help them, and follow the suggestions in this and upcoming posts when working with your child at home.

Think about whether the subject matter is interesting to your child, too. If they’re big science fans, for example, they’ll likely be extra motivated to work hard on understanding the text of Ada Twist, Scientist.

For more on the importance of grade-level texts, read “Let’s talk equity: Reading levels, scaffolds, and grade-level text” by Cindy Jiban. For help finding grade-level texts for your child, talk to their teacher or a local librarian. You can also browse the Mississippi Department of Education’s “Equipped book list: Lists by grade level.”

3. Read together

Find something enjoyable to read with your child and take turns reading out loud: a picture book, a chapter from a novel, a graphic novel, a comic book, or even a news or magazine article. Your child will benefit from hearing you read because your reading demonstrates skills for your child, such as how to pronounce words, pace themselves, and add emotion to their reading.

Not sure where to find something to read? Your local library probably has a great selection, and a librarian can help you find just the right book. If you would rather research on your own, take a look at lists of award winners. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ library has an excellent database that will let you search by numerous awards. I recommend books that have won the Batchelder Award, Caldecott Medal, Coretta Scott King Book Award, Geisel Award, Newbery Medal, Pura Belpré Award, or Sibert Medal. (UNLV also has a handy page with details on the history and focus of each of these awards.)

If you prefer e-books and your library doesn’t offer them, try the free or low-cost options on Story Mentors, for kindergarten and first grade, or Open Library’s Student Library, for kids in preschool through sixth grade.

You can do this!

Wherever your child is in their reading development, you can support them. However you choose to do that will likely have a positive impact on their reading.

Read our next post to learn more about how reading works and how to support your child with the time you have.

Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Leslie Yudman and Toni Gibbs, ELA senior content specialists, and Lauren Bardwell, senior manager of Content Advocacy and Design, for their contributions to this blog post.

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